Developing Your Customer Base on the Cheap

By Andrew McCoy and Fred Sargent | Oct 15, 2012




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John Spellman never dreamed the day would come when he would be thought of as a “hot-dog marketeer,” whose down-to-earth business techniques would be touted to the country’s best electrical contractors as ways to improve their service-related efforts and results. He never imagined that well-established firms much larger than his own budding business would copy his oh-so-simple strategies for building a loyal customer base. But because John—starting from scratch—built a base of a few hundred repeat customers in only three months, with low-cost and sometimes zero-cost methods, we thought he had a story from which every service-oriented electrical contractor could learn a thing or two.

We met with John in person to see if he would be willing to share some of his service-related insights. We found him on the sidewalk of a busy city street energetically engaged in conversation with one of his regular customers. Unintentionally eavesdropping, we immediately picked up on elements of that homemade style with which he continues to enlarge his roster of come-back-again clientele.

Before we elaborate on a few of those clever methods, which he was quite willing to share with us, let’s hit the highlights of John’s personal history to put our account of his entrepreneurial success into proper context.
Like so many of our readers, John grew up in a household supported by a family-owned construction business. Also, like many readers, from an early age, he always had a summer job with the company, working as a helper on residential and commercial projects of different sizes.

He continued on with the company for a few years, but he did not want to spend his life in construction contracting. He wanted a career in the medical field, so he went to nursing school, became a licensed practical nurse, and quickly found a position in a large metropolitan hospital. For nine years he enjoyed his caregiving role, but he began to suffer from an occupational hazard that sometimes befalls hospital workers: sadly, he developed a latex allergy and had to quit.

Disappointed by being forced to leave a role in which he had gained a remarkable degree of personal satisfaction by taking care of others, he looked for a new opportunity to apply his highly evident people skills. After trying a few other things, he found an answer: instead of seeking a new job, he would start a new business.

John Spellman, entrepreneur, bought a cart and became a street vendor. We confidently believe that he fully deserves to be thought of as a hot-dog marketeer, based on the personal knack that he has displayed in building his business and cultivating his clientele. What are the secrets to his success? He boils them down to a few main concepts requiring minimal investment, all of which are highly applicable to electrical field service work. The following are these concepts.


John always greets customers in a friendly manner as they approach his cart. He shares a little conversation with every one of them. Friendliness is a standard feature of the “service experience” that John consistently creates on the edge of a public sidewalk.

Contractors who take pride in their electrical field service operations—and who undoubtedly think of themselves as being far more sophisticated than a street vendor such as John—should ask themselves if they are absolutely certain that their individual service electricians consistently come into contact with customers’ representatives in a manner that is comparable to Spellman’s friendly style. There are simple ways to find out. The question is worth exploring because sometimes a little conversation can immediately lead to a lot more work.


John Spellman buys and sells only the best all-beef hot dogs. How do we know that? John tells everyone! He always makes a point of telling customers that they are about to enjoy a better hot dog than they might get anywhere else.

Service-oriented contractors can provide top-brand products and skilled labor that represent the best available in the electrical industry. Do service electricians take time to point out to customers—who usually lack up-to-date product knowledge—the quality level of what is being installed? Do they take that minimal amount of time required immediately after completing an installation to ensure the customer understands that it was done in a first-rate manner?

Unlike hot dogs, electrical work is complicated and should be explained. It is through teaching and explanation that we also learn from customers. Most customers also appreciate the satisfaction of knowing the value of their purchase.


With a style that perhaps comes with years of nursing experience, John routinely makes a ceremony out of inserting a food thermometer into his hot dogs while they are cooking. Along with that highly visible tribute to basic food preparation safety, he maintains a spotless mobile kitchen. He takes pride in the cleanliness of his food cart.

How often do contractors send their electricians out into the field to perform service calls with a similar sense of the importance of basic tidiness? How many electricians plunge into what they are doing without taking time to do something as fundamental as protecting a customer’s furnishings and floor with a dropcloth to catch dust and debris? How many of them think that it is simply good enough to vacuum up the mess afterward? Customers who have no technical knowledge can be quite capable of recognizing sloppy work—and choosing another contractor for the next job.

Purchase rewards

Early on, at minimal expense, John had a few hundred business cards printed, each with five checkboxes on the reverse side accompanied by a simply stated purchase-rewards offer, “Buy five items, get one free!” By the time he had given out the first 500 cards, his newly established base of repeat customers had redeemed 200 completed cards with all five boxes checked. They were hooked. Those little cards quickly served as constant reminders as to where to find a great hot dog for lunch.

We aren’t proposing that electrical contractors introduce get-one-free offers for electrical work, but we advocate that every service-oriented contractor find creative ways to establish a preplanned system of what we refer to as “reminder marketing,” which we define as any cost-effective means of regularly—and gently—reminding those in your customer base that they are your customer and you are their contractor.

We offer this street vendor’s case history simply as a parable to suggest how both low-cost and no-cost measures can successfully lead to big-dollar rewards. What has worked in this one-man operation can be applied on a far greater scale for contractors who have the vision to make such things happen.

About The Author

MCCOY is Beliveau professor in the Dept. of Building Construction, associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech. Contact him at [email protected].


SARGENT heads Great Service Forums℠, which offers networking opportunities, business development and professional education to its membership of service-oriented contractors. Email him at [email protected].





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